Bringing a new Australian musical to the stage is a mammoth achievement. Successful productions from the recent past usually started as commissions from state theatre companies, such as Sydney Theatre Company’s Muriel’s Wedding, Belvoir’s Fangirls and Melbourne Theatre Company’s Ladies in Black. Which makes the sudden arrival of Midnight – The Cinderella Musical somewhat of an anomaly and definitely intriguing.
This show has opened cold on the mainstage of the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne and, while the producers should be applauded for their tenacity in getting this production to the stage, that is sadly where the praise ends. Midnight is, unfortunately, a dull, overlong and derivative rehash of the Cinderella story that has a bit of an identity crisis and, despite a hardworking and talented cast, never takes flight.
The plot is basically the same old fairy tale we all know, with a few supposedly “modern” twists. Main protagonist Ella (Brianna Bishop) is randomly civic-minded, referring to “affordable housing” and “unfair taxes”, and she tries to get the privileged Prince (Thomas McGuane) to use his power for the good of the kingdom. If this sounds familiar that’s because this is essentially the same plot as the updated Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which toured just last year in a wonderful production by Opera Australia.
Midnight begins with a small child, Stella (Liv Jacobson, daughter of Shane, who plays the King), reading from a fairy tale book as she tries to go to sleep. She begins to alter the story as she sees fit, incorporating new elements and characters throughout, yet at times also seeming weirdly surprised by what is happening. It becomes a rather weak framing device and, after appearing consistently in the first act, this character all but disappears in the second half before returning towards the end of the show where her true relationship to the story is revealed. This makes little to no sense, like many elements of the plot.
For example, why does Ella love the Prince after they met briefly once as children and he was rude? How can she possibly not know his true identity for so long? Why is the stepmother Madame Bellington (Verity Hunt-Ballard) so mean? Not to mention the convoluted subplot concerning the disappearance of Ella’s father (Raphael Wong). There are so many head-scratching moments in Midnight I lost track.
The extensive score by John Foreman and Anthony Costanzo is rather generic and incohesive, and borrows heavily from existing musical theatre repertoire. There are Wicked-style power ballads, a Beauty and the Beast-inspired tavern number and several other Disney-like facsimiles throughout. The highlight of the score is the emotional ballad ‘Without You,’ which was written by Kate Miller-Heidke, but regrettably the rest of the score never quite reaches these heights. On a more positive note, the music sounds wonderful in the theatre thanks to Anthony Barnhill’s musical direction and Kelvin Gedye’s sound design.
The problems of Midnight also extend to the physical production. The set and costumes are underwhelming and appear very low cost. The main set is a dull barn-like house that is constantly wheeled on and off stage by the cast, the wigs are ill-fitting, and there’s almost no physical distinction between the different characters played by the hard-working ensemble, so when they appear in a new scene with a different accent, but their costume is basically the same, it gets very confusing. The lighting is pedestrian and does little to add a sense of location or support the narrative.
Thankfully, this production is blessed with a wonderful cast, including some greats of the Australian stage such as Hunt-Ballard, who is reunited with the original Bert to her Mary Poppins, Matt Lee who plays the prince’s manservant Andre, as well as a tap-dancing teddy bear (don’t ask). Audience favourite Lucy Durack portrays a friendly maid/fairy godmother and relative newcomer Bishop holds her own as Ella with great comic timing, a powerful and versatile singing voice, and a warm presence. The problem is none of these performers are given much to sink their teeth into or opportunities to shine, and you walk away feeling disappointed and a little cheated.
New Australian musicals are essential to creating a diverse and unique theatrical landscape, but unfortunately Midnight turns out to be just another tired adaptation of a clichéd fairy tale we’ve seen a million times before.
Midnight – The Cinderella Musical
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne
Book: Dean Murphy and Pip Mushin
Music and Lyrics: John Foreman and Anthony Costanzo
Additional Music and Lyrics: Kate Miller-Heidke
Directors: Dean Murphy and Pip Mushin
Midnight will be performed until 23 July 2023.